Hydromels - Making Sessionable Meads

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Making meads can get expensive, not to mention time consuming. Good quality varietal honey can be pricey and meads may not reach their prime until 7-12 months. A lot of people I see end up aiming for these high ABV (16-18%) sack meads. They throw in 4 pounds of honey per gallon and some Champagne yeast.
About 8 months later the posts usually looks like this;
"Help!!! My mead tastes terrible, should I dump it?" The answer is no, but you do need to wait another 6-12 months. I'm not knocking high ABV meads, but I am saying if you sign up to make one, you should sign up to wait a while until you drink it while you're at it. So at the other end of the spectrum is this topic. Hydromels, or light/ session meads. These meads range from 6-9% ABV, but don't let the lower alcohol fool you, as they can be just as flavorful and complex as full strength meads. Let's look at some of the benefits of making hydromels.
Less cost for experiments or batch trials: Let's say you want to try a new honey varietal for a traditional mead. You can expect to pay almost half of what it would cost to make a standard strength mead. This is a good thing since you don't know if this new ingredient or honey will be a good candidate. If it is, you can step up it's use on a future batch with confidence. As an example, you can make a 1 gallon hydromel with roughly 1.5-1.75 pounds of honey.
Less time to produce a finished mead: There are only a handful of recipes that are over 10% ABV and are finished in under 3 months (JAOM and BOMM) come to mind. But most if not all hydromels can be completed in a 45-90 day window, which can help ease the burden off of getting into mead making (who wasn't first turned off by possibly having to wait months upon months to be finished). As long as you still follow some kind of nutrient schedule, your mead can finish ferment and clear very quickly, without leaving behind any harsh alcoholic notes or yeast stress off flavors to be aged out.
You get to drink more: Go ahead, split that 750ml with someone on a work night. Need I say more?
So now we've gone over the why of making hydromels, so let's go over the how. In essence, they aren't very much different from making a standard mead. I however usually load all my nutrients in one addition at the same time as yeast pitch. I also don't use a full dose of nutrients as the yeast don't typically need it. Even the humblest of wine or beer yeast can take your must to dry in just a few days. For this reason you don't need to do a staggered nutrient addition. Your ? sugar break will likely be passed overnight and your yeast will miss a meal.
Now there are some downsides to hydromels. They typically have a much lighter body than their full strength counterparts. This can be addressed with some maltodextrin or glycerin. Both are neutral flavored and will address body issues in any wine. This also makes hydromels a good candidate for a dry champagne-like carbonated mead. Like I said earlier, this variety of mead is just as limitless as a full strength mead. Here are a few recipes for inspiration.

Spiced Mead

Cinnamon Clove Spiced Hydromel:

  • 1 Gallon
  • 1.5 lbs Orange Blossom Honey
  • 2 Tablespoons Vanilla Rooibos Tea (23 fl.oz Brewed)
  • 1 Cinnamon Stick
  • 2 whole cloves
  • Muntons Ale Yeast
Your target SG for this is 1.050, and all the ingredients go right into primary. The tea is very subtle and for a stronger flavor contribution, think about doubling to 4 tablespoons of loose leaf tea. This mead is very good with slight back sweetening with more orange blossom honey. It can be back sweetened and bottled when it's crystal clear (around 50-60 days).

Strawberry Mead

Strawberry Currant Hydromel:

  • 1 Gallon
  • 1.25 pounds Orange Blossom Honey
  • 20 ounces of Red Currant Jam
  • Yeast : Red Star Pasteur Red
  • Starting Gravity: 1.056
  • Secondary: 1.5 Pounds Strawberry Puree
So with this recipe, you'll want to add some pectic enzyme to the jam a couple days before brewing. This will give it time to break down all the pectin in the jam, as extra pectin is added during the jam making process. Once the must is mixed up, you can pitch the yeast. After the fermentation is done, and the sediment has mostly dropped out, you can rack to a secondary and stabilize. Once it is stabilized, add 1.5 pounds of strawberry puree to back sweeten it. This mead will be a medium sweetness, have good body, and good acid (from the currant jam) to balance it out. One note about this recipe, and pureed strawberries in general: There will be quite a bit of lossage as they make a fluffy cloudy mess at the bottom of your fermenter. You'll get less final product out of it, but the taste and aroma are exceptional.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in sessionable mead making. Try adding exotic fruits or steeping specialty grains. Make a dry batch, and back sweeten it with different varietal honeys to get a feel for them. Whether it's for experimentation or pure enjoyment to be repeated again and again, hydromels make an excellent tool in your arsenal.

If you're wondering about how much honey you need for certain ABVs / gravities, I've included a chart I made. This chart shows the pounds of honey, the starting gravity and the ABV if it were to ferment to 1.000 (per gallon). Then if you want to make a larger batch, you can just multiply. Like all homebrewing, going in with some kind of plan is always wise.
For more from David make sure to catch him at his blog, Hive Mind Mead,and follow him on Twitter.
I like this idea. I have a few 3 gallon kegs left over from when I brewed small beer batches. A sessionable sparkling mead would be easy to make and a nice addition to the tap list.
Nice work
Nice, well-written article. And timely too: I was just planning on doing some one-gallon batches of mead, including sour/lambic as well as hydromel. Thanks for the inspiration!
If I was to want to scale one of these recipes to 3 or 5 gallons, do I just multiply the ingredients by 3 or 5 respectively? I know that's not the case with brewing beer, but have no idea with mead...
@Ztup For the most part. The only thing you don't really scale proportionally for meads is spices. It's hard to give a baseline for how much extra spice you need for all spices as they all act differently. The best thing to do is start with the 1 gallon amount and add a bit at a time.
You can easily add more spices if needed. It's much harder to remove what you already put in.
Well-written, sir, and thank you! Mead making has been something I really want to excel at...but sadly have not done so yet - I have done a couple and they are increasingly better through time - shelving and forgetting helps a lot there.
I do have a question about the sparkling side of things. I made an attempt to add that sparkle, but I was unsuccessful using honey as the priming sugar - what is the best way to accomplish this and not have bottle bombs, etc? Any tips on that?
plain sugar works fine. The amount you need to add in order to carbonate won't add any flavor. So, no need to use more expensive sugar sources.
As long as you didn't stabilize your mead, or max the yeast out, it should have carbonated. And make sure your bottle can hold carbonation. Most wine bottles (minus champagne etc) would rather blow up that hold CO2
@MarshmallowBlue Indeed! I used beer bottles for my carb attempt (both times). Wine bottles only used for the still stuff. Will the volumes of CO2 match the same for beer in your experience? 1oz dextrose per gallon for instance?
Forgive my mead ignorance once again, but you mention that the Cinnamon Clove Spiced Hydromel can be backsweetened with more honey when it's crystal clear, what prevents the additional honey from fermenting at that point? Is the Munton's yeast simply maxed out at that point?
@Ztup stabilize with potassium sorbate and camden tabs. Then add your back-sweetening agent a day later. If you do add more honey, sometimes you need to let it clear some more.
@Arrheinous Not at all. If you still have some residual sugar left over, it's good to stabilize even if you aren't back sweetening. But yes, you can bottle Uncarbonated hydromel in wine bottles.
All you're doing for a hydromel is providing less sugar to the yeast, everything else is standard practice.
Or if it's gone dry (1.000) you can bottle it as is.